Fitton was a quiet little village. There was nothing particularly grand or unique about this village that distinct it from dozens of others. Mothers bore sons who grew up to take over the family business. Daughters would be married off so they could bear more sons, and continue the cycle it always has for thousands of years. Beyond the occasional wizard raid or troll attack, the village of Fitton was content in its simpleness.
Martin hated it.
That was not entirely true. He had a good father, a faithful mother, two siblings whom he loved. He had nieces and nephews who adored him because he was so good whittling them little toys. He had a business of moving large objects from house to house or farm to farm. He knew how to read, write, and use a iron forge.
There was nothing wrong with any of this, he supposed. He just didn't feel... complete. Maybe all he needed was a wife, at least according to Simon. Someone to sink his loins in and bear him children. As wonderful as that sounded, Martin seriously doubted someone would want him, someone so awkward and gangly and borderline depressed all the time.
It didn't help he did not look like anyone else in the village. Everyone either had black hair or blonde hair or something in between. Martin's hair was a bright red, not at all complimenting his pale complexion or his thin frame. When he asked his mother where the red came from, she explained that his great-great-great-great grandfather had red hair. It must have come from him. Martin was not an ugly young man, but his unique color certainly did not wager appreciative looks. Instead, he bore mockery from the ladies of the village who could not stop staring at his red top.
During the day, when he was alone in the fields, passing from house to house with his wagon filled with furniture, he would look up at the endless blue sky and wonder what was out there.
He heard of the stories, the knights saving captured princesses and the princes who revenge their fallen kingdoms. Martin certainly didn't want that sort of adventure, but anything than spending everyday moving furniture would be better.
He didn't know what to do. He knew that it was bad luck to look for adventure because you never get the one you want. You're only inviting trouble. He was not a prince, not a knight, he was not destined for greatness. Adventure will not come for him because no one would want to read about his story.
So Martin resigned himself to a life of boring labor and he stopped looking up to the skies for guidance. He didn't see the point anymore.
But like all fairy tales, even the ones of yonder years, fate smiles on those who wait. Adventure did eventually find its way to Martin Crieff. In the shape of an otter.
Martin pulled hard on his reins, halting his donkey, Daria. Martin peered around the dirt road, trying to look for the voice that called out to him. He couldn't see anything. Thinking perhaps it was the wind, he was ready to snap the reigns to keep moving otherwise he'll be late with this furniture. He heard the voice cry out again.
"Please don't run me over! Please..."
Martin halted Daria again, this time getting out of his wagon to see what was going on. Slowly he manuevered to the front of the wagon, unsure if this was a trick. He heard the crooked tales of sirens, the mystical maidens who used their voices to bewitch men in order to eat them. He was in no mood to be eaten today.
It wasn't a siren. Just a very pregnant otter. "Please," she begged, her little whiskers twitching sadly. She was just right in front of the wagon's wheel. She would have been torn in half if Martin had not stopped. "Don't run me over. My leg-" Martin looked at her leg. It was caught in between a wedge of a fallen tree branch, trapping her. "I can barely move as I am now. Please."
"It's all right," Martin said, kneeling down in front of her. He wasn't about to leave this pregnant creature here so some other wagon could run her over. "I can help, don't worry."
He snapped the tree off her leg and the otter sighed in relief. Martin then gently picked her up and carried her off the road to the other side where a pond was waiting for her. "Thank you, kind sir," the otter said gratefully as Martin carefully put her in the water. "You just saved my life. Let me repay you somehow."
"That isn't really necessary." What can an otter do for him?
"Please. I cannot let a life debt go. Is there something you want?"
Martins nearly laughed. He looked back at Daria and she whined impatiently. Furniture called to him, reminding him he had two more deliveries to go. Great.
"Adventure," Martin said finally, shrugging. "Something, anything to get me out of here. I want... I don't know... Something."
The otter trilled appreciatively. "I myself cannot provide adventure, but I know where you can find 'something.' There," she pointed with her little paw towards the mountains. "Follow the path to the rising sun. Do not deviate from the road, do not eat or drink anything that's offered to you on the way there. Once you come upon the mountains, you will find what you were looking for."
Gee, that sounded vague and ominious. "Uh, thanks?"
"You're quite welcome, human with red hair. I will name one of my babies after you." With that, the otter dove into the pond, her fat pregnant form disappearing in the water.
Martin did not bother considering her offer. He was not the knight looking to save the captured maiden nor was he the lost prince. He was a simple man, from a simple village, and none of that said hero material. He was more likely to be eaten by a dragon on the way to the mountains.
So Martin tried to bury the otter experience to the back of his brain as he delivered the furniture. The furniture he was most likely going to move every day.
For the rest of his life.
Later that night as Martin stared around his empty home, feeling like he'd just spent the whole day doing nothing, he made his decision. He was going to the mountains.
Martin was not an irresponsible man. He may be running away from home but he wasn't going to leave without making a few preparations. He made sure someone will look after Daria. He left his worldly goods like his home and wagon to his parents. He also wrote a few short letters to his family, explaning his reasons and hope none of them will come looking for him. He doesn't think they will, not when they had their own families to look after.
On the rising sun of the third day after everything was done with, Martin packed a bag with a few necessary items. With one last look around his residence, a place that never really felt like home, Martin closed the door and didn't look back.
Martin never bothered to climb the mountain trail. When he was little, his parents forbid him from going near because they feared he might get eaten by a dragon. As he got older, he had no reason to climb the slope because the terrian was too rough on his wagon.
He felt a little giddy as he took his first step towards the mountain. He was never much of a rule breaker before and this felt like the ultimate sin. Nobody he knew took this route, preferring to use the roads that went around the mountain. It made him wonder how many people in his village ever dared to take this path, even for mere curiosity.
By mid afternoon, the village of Fitton was nothing more than a little dot off in the distance. Though he was hot and thirsty, Martin felt grand for walking so far. He never thought he would see the world like this, looking off into the horizon like it was endless. It was beautiful.
There was a moment or two when Martin stopped in his tracks, leaning against the trees to catch his breath, when a voice from the forest would call out to him.
"Oh sir, you look so tired. Why don't you come closer and share my afternoon tea with me?"
Martin had carried some food with him but he already consumed it hours ago. The thought of having tea while resting underneath the cool shade of trees sounded so lovely. He nearly took a step off the path, straight into the forest, when he quickly remembered the otter's words. From then on, he ignored every voice that called out to him.
A few hours later, the path eventually ended right in front of a mouth of a large cave.
He hesitated to enter.
The otter had said nothing about a cave, and the path did not lead anywhere else. Does that mean he should keep going forward?
Suddenly Martin wished he brought himself a sword. He carried a small knife with him, but that was designed to cut fruit, not defend against evils. He took a moment to psych himself up, and entered the cave.
He sighed in relief, the cool darkness a great welcome after many hours of walking. He kept a hand out on the walls of the cave, slowly making his way forward as the light behind him became less. When it became so dark Martin could not tell which way was up, he decided to go back.
His back bumped into a wall. What the hell...?
"Who's this, then?" said a deep low voice, making Martin jump in surprise. "You lost, boy?"
"Leave him be, Douglas," joined in another voice. A female voice. "Nobody wants to listen to you talk."
"So we should just let him walk around, without reason?"
"No, but stop sounding like you own the place."
"Um... Hello?" Martin began slowly. He didn't like that these two people were talking about him like he wasn't here. "Do any of you have a light, so I may see who you are?"
"A light?" came a much younger, male voice. "Sure thing!"
A second later there was a rush of air and fire bloomed out from the shadows. Martin flinched away from the sudden flash and when his eyes adjusted, he gasped.
He was surrounded by dragons.
There were four of them. Three males and a female. One male was much older than the rest, his green scales nearly a sickly white. He looked down upon Martin like he wanted to eat him.
Next to him sat another male, with scales of dark blue and were incredibly beautiful. But like the older male, he looked upon Martin with an odd eye. More curious than annoyance, but still so very smug.
The female appeared just as old as the pale-green dragon, though her scales were a light purple. She had a nasty looking claw on the base of her tail, and she swished it back and forth in a threatening manner.
The last dragon was the youngest of the bunch, with bright red and purple scales. He stared at Martin like he'd never seen a human before and he practically bounced in his anticipation.
"So," drawled the purple scaled dragon. "What's your name, sonny?"
It took a couple of seconds for Martin to gain a breath to speak. He heard dragons were very easily annoyed and it took very little provocation to anger them. "I'm... I'm... I'm Martin C-C-Creiff."
The dragon sneered at him. "Well, Martin C-C-Crieff," he repeated in a mocking tone. "What are you doing here?"
"Um... an otter told me to come."
"An otter?" The youngest squealed. "I've never seen an otter! How big are they?"
Martin wasn't sure how to take that dragon's over enthusiastic tone. He made a vague size gesture with his hands. "Uh... About this big."
The dragon squealed again. "Wow! See, Douglas?" He addressed the purple dragon. "With that size, we could definately fit at least a hundred in here!"
Douglas rolled his eyes. "Yes, Arthur, I supposed you're right."
"Enough!" said the oldest male. A burst of flame erupted from his nostrils, filling up the cave with the smell of smoke. "We have a human in our mist. What should we do about?"
The female casted him an annoyed look. "What do you propose we do, then, Gordon?"
"Please don't," Martin begged. He could feel tears prickling at edges of his eyes. A part of him told him to stop, not make himself a fool in front of such creatures, but a bigger part was telling it didn't matter. What's the point of dignity if he was just going to get eaten? "I'll do anything, please don't eat me..."
"Really?" said Arthur with giant golden eyes. "Will you be my friend?"
"Will you eat me?"
Arthur smiled, revealing rows and rows of jagged, sharp teeth. "Brilliant!"
The female groaned. "No, Arthur, we're not keeping a pet."
"But, mum! Martin is not a pet! He's my friend!"
"You've only known him for five minutes!"
"Five minutes is long enough!"
Gordon gave out another annoyed growl. "Oh, for pity sakes-!"
He suddenly bared his teeth, and his neck shot out like a bullet, coming towards Martin with jaws wide opened. Martin cried out, threw up his hands in front of him like that could stop the onslaught of death.
A giant purple claw swooped down, grabbing Martin, snatching him away just in time before Gordon chomped down on him. "Calm youself," Douglas said slowly, holding the young man out of reach. "Do you really want this human's family taking revenge on you because you were impatient?"
Gordon humphed. He retracted his neck, all fifteen feet of scales and muscles and bristled like he was personally offended. "Do what you want," he spat, turning around to face an open portion of the cave Martin was sure wasn't there before. "I'm off to find some lunch."
He left, his claws making the most horrific sound on the rocky ground.
Martin shifted in the dragon's grasp. "Um... Can you let me down, please?"
Douglas dropped him.
Martin was only perhaps ten feet off the ground, but that was still enough for his knees to explode in pain when he landed. "Next time," Douglas hissed, turning to face his own newly opened cave hole. "Maybe a little gratitude?"
He nodded briefly at the others. "Carolyn, Arthur," he said, disappearing down the dark path.
"Are you okay?" Arthur asked, gently nudging Martin with his snout.
Martin gritted his teeth. "I'm fine... My knees feel broken, but I'm fine."
"Arthur," Carolyn spoke up in a strange tone. "Do me a favor and go on ahead to fix Martin's room."
Arthur smiled one of his toothy grins again. "Sure thing, mum! Oh, this'll be great, Martin. You'll love it here! Not all of us want to eat you..."
Arthur disappeared down another new cave path. Martin wondered how many paths there were, how many that could only be accessed by dragons. No wonder there were so many tales of knights getting eaten by dragons. Trying to find one in a cave like this could drive a man mad.
Carolyn waited impatiently for Martin to stop rubbing at his knees. Her horned tail kept swishing menacingly. "Can you read?" she asked suddenly.
Something in her voice told Martin he needed to take this seriously. He scrambled to his feet, ignoring the ache in his legs. "Yes, I can."
"Write too, hopefully?"
"Yes." His parents were not that rich, but they taught all their children to read and write.
"What else can you do?"
"I can count. I know how to use a forge. I can lift heavy objects and carry them without hurting myself."
Geeze, his job sounded stupid coming out of his mouth.
Carolyn considered him for a moment. "Good," she announced. "You're lucky. If you couldn't read or write, I would have eaten you."
"Know this, Martin, just because my son like you does not mean I do. I do not like having humans in my home. Especially lazy humans who cannot pull their own weight. While you are here, you will cook, clean, and do anything else I ask of you. Otherwise, I will have to spin another tale for Arthur how you decided you missed your family and went back home. And if that was too vague for you to understand, let me simplify it: I will eat you. Understand?"
Martin nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
The dragon grimaced. "Ugh, dont't call me ma'am. You make me feel old. You can call me Carolyn."
Martin's room was bigger than his entire house. He had a bed so large he wouldn't be able to fall off even if he rolled over four times. He had an enchanted closet that provided him with clothes, perfectly suited to his size. He also had a small pool of constant flowing water, perfect for a full bodied bath. Back in Fitton, if he wanted to clean himself he had to bathe out of a bucket smaller than his head.
Carolyn said if he wanted to leave, he can. He was not a prisoner here, but he was also not a guest. If he planned to stay here and do nothing... Chomp chomp.
As horrifying as the threat of getting eaten hung over his head was, Martin felt giddy. It was a terrifying feeling, excitment and death all rolled into one. He never expected to have this, never thought his life could be anything more than just hauling people's stuff back and forth. He almost wanted to cry, it was so much to take in.
Martin didn't think dragons could read, let alone own libraries.
"Wow," he said, stunned. There looked to be thousands of books, shoved onto shelves, stacked on top of each other, higher than Martin's head. There were tomes so large, he believed he may need a crank just to move them.
Arthur was more than glad to show off the library to him, and he practically pounced from one pile of books onto another, knocking them down in his hustle. "Mum has been collecting these books for years," he said giddy. "Some are so rare, knights have literally tried to slay her just to get these books."
Martin didn't want to think what the fates of those knights were. "I don't understand, why does she need me to organize this? Can't she do it?"
"She can," Arthur agreed. "But she hates it. I would do it, but... I'm not that good with organization and stuff."
"Oh," Martin picked up one book. Dust flew in waves off of it. This was going to be a difficult job. Some of these books didn't have titles or authors. "Um... Arthur-"
"Can you get me some parchment, ink and quills, please? I need to make some notes."
At first, Martin felt uneasy addressing something that could tear him in half so casually. But after the first hour of working together, the two became fast friends. Arthur was just as curious about the human world as much as Martin was about the dragon world. They whiddled away the time asking each other questions and answering them to the best of their abilities.
"I've noticed there's no air holes for the smoke to escape," Martin said as he finished organizing the A section. "How does that work?"
"Magic," Arthur said, holding the books that were too big for Martin to handle. He would wait, holding at least three giant books in each clawed hand till Martin directed him to move. "Every dragon can generate their own magic, some better than others. With so many dragons living in these caves, everything sorta just took a life on its own."
"That's incredible. Does that mean other dragons have access to this library too?"
Arthur laughed. "Oh, no! We may share the caves, but not our stuff. We're very protective of what's ours."
Martin looked at the thousands of books. How would Carolyn even know if one had gone missing?
Arthur kept on talking. "Why, for example, if someone took you, mum would fight to get you back."
"What?" Now that didn't make much sense. Not after the long speech of 'I will eat you' Carolyn inflicted upon him not even a few hours ago. "Your mum said I could leave whenever I liked."
"Yeah... but, until then, you're hers. After all, you're under her roof, her employment, and thus, her protection. Nobody here would dare hurt you or take you unless they want to face mum's wrath."
Martin wasn't sure how he felt about that. Carolyn gave no indication she would protect him. Thinking about this, Martin lifted up another book.
His eyesight suddenly blurred and he felt himself sway. He dropped the book, nearly toppling over himself. Arthur caught him in his large clawed hand. "Are you okay?" he asked worridly.
"I'm fine," Martin said, pushing himself up from Arthur's grasp. "I'm just exhausted."
He had woken up very early to begin his journey. Walked for nearly eight hours, was threatened by dragons, then sent to organize this library without so much a rest. He was surprised he lasted this long.
"Bed, then," Arthur mused, pushing Martin gently towards the exit.
Martin protested. "No, I-I can still work..."
"Nope. Time for sleep."
"Arthur, please, let me work. Your mum said if I don't, she'll eat me."
Arthur laughed. "Oh, she says that to everyone. Nobody will work, otherwise. The trouble that comes with eating humans is too much to bother with."
That didn't feel as reassuring as Arthur thought it would. Either way, Martin allowed himself to be steered into his bedroom. He quickly cleaned himself of the dust, changed into a fresh pair of pajamas and snuggled into his overly large bed.
"I'm really glad you're here, Martin," Arthur said as one by one, the magical floating flames doused themselves out. Soon, Martin's room was drapped in lovely darkness, all except for one tiny purple flame, giving off just enough light to see the outline of Arthur's frame. "I don't get many friends who want to stay."
"Mmmm..." Martin responded sleepily.
Martin was diligent in his work. After he set up a rudimentary system for the books, it became fairly easy to organize them. Less than a week's time, he already finished half of the library. Even Carolyn was impressed.
"Very good," she said approvingly, looking over the books. "Much better than the princesses."
"Princessess?" Martin asked.
"Oh, those useless twits. You would think with all that money and education, they would be able to organize a simple library! They tasted just as bland."
Carolyn kept on with the eating threats, though with a quick confirmation from Arthur assured him that was all they were: just threats. "You know, it's tradition," Arthur told him once as they ate a lovely lunch of glazed ham and fresh bread. "Dragons stealing a princess, then a knight saves the princess. Mum is so powerful, most of the time the kingdoms just pay a ransom instead of sending in a knight."
"But she doesn't really eat them, does she?"
"And risk war? Of course not. Besides, a lot of princesses volunteer to be kidnapped."
Martin nearly snorted into his drink. "Who voluntarily allows themselves to be kidnapped?"
"Well... you did, Martin," Arthur said with a sly look. Martin blushed. "Plus, a rescued princess is a great way for them to get married. Douglas' current princess is here on her own free will. You should meet her, she's really nice!"
At first, Martin didn't believe him. While Carolyn's threats were useless, there were just as many dragons here who held no qualms eating a human being. Like Gordon. Martin didn't want to think of how awful it must be for a princess to be kidnapped by him.
As the days went by, Martin was comfortable enough in his position to wander around the caves without supervision. He never strayed very far, the caves were too labyrinth-like for his liking, and did his best to memorize the tunnels and where they led to.
He ended up meeting other dragons. There was Carl, a grey colored dragon who liked Martin immediately and invited him over for afternoon tea. There was Birling, a light purple dragon who demanded Martin to organize his library. When Martin politely declined, Birling huffed and said, "What use are you for, then? Piss off."
After that, he met Linda, a beautiful red scaled dragon who more or less ignored him. He was then nearly trampled to death by Dirk, a large dark green dragon whose footsteps sounded like boulders falling from a great height.
Carolyn at first didn't agree with Martin's wandering, but she couldn't deny her library was getting better with each passing day and Martin always came back. "If you get in trouble," she warned. "Don't expect me to rescue you."
Her threats were losing strength everyday. It was hard to take them seriously when Carolyn kept insisting he'd eat more ("I'd expect you to have the strength to carry on organizing my library!") or when he once ran into Gordon, Carolyn immediately pushed him behind her. For the rest of the day, she called him an idiot for causing unecessary trouble.
Today Martin was exploring a new set of caves, mentally memorizing the twists and turns so he could find his way back. He only gotten lost once and it was Arthur who found him, picking him up and cooing at him like a child. It was so embarrassing, Martin swore he would never lose his way again.
Every couple of feet he would stop, take out a piece of partchment and quickly sketch the surrounding area. There were a few places on his makeshift map that held a giant X through them, indicating which were the most hazardous to his health. (Gordon's cave, Dirk's and possibly Birling's.)
After sketching the new area, Martin replaced his map and took a turn around a sharp corner.
There he came upon one of the most beautiful women he has ever seen in his life.
She wore a common maid's outfit, though that did nothing to diminish her beauty. She had long brown curly hair, radiant pale skin, and giant green eyes. She was an older woman, perhaps in her mid-forties, with the smallest of wrinkles barely touching her skin.
She was currently cleaning the scales of Douglas' claw.
Martin suddenly remembered what Arthur said a few days ago, about Douglas having a princess. What was her name again? Helena?
He guessed she must be one of those 'volunteered princesses' because she didn't look like someone who was being held here against her will. As she cleaned the scales, she happily chatted with Douglas, grinning at him and laughing.
Douglas himself was not the big scary dragon Martin remembered a few weeks ago. If anything, he seemed to be rather enamored with the princess from the way he so-very-gently moved around her, looking at her like she was a precious jewel.
Martin suddenly felt like he came upon an intimate moment. He tried to move back from where he came from.
Then promptly tripped over a rock and fell with a clatter.
Both Douglas and Helena whipped their heads towards him. Helena with a surprised look and Douglas with an annoyed one. He pulled his giant claw back from Helena as he watched Martin pick himself up from the ground awkwardly.
"Uh, hi," Martin said, blushing. "Sorry for interuppting, didn't mean-"
Something registered in Helena's face. "Oh, are you Martin?"
He shouldn't be so pleased that she knew his name, especially not the way Douglas was glaring at him. "I am."
"I'm so pleased to finally meet you," she said and dropped her cleaning brush to come to him. "Douglas has told me about you and I've wanted to meet you for so very long."
"Oh yes," she said, smiling. "There's not that many humans here and sometimes it gets lonely. Come in," she said, tugging him by the hand and leading him deeper into Douglas' caves. "I'll make us some tea."
She bundled off to where Martin assumed was towards the kitchen, leaving him alone with Douglas.
Douglas, who still looked annoyed. "So," he said unfriendly. "You're still here?"
It was a loaded question. Martin wasn't sure how to answer. "Why not?"
The dragon's lip curled a bit, revealing the tiniest pointed tip of a fang. "Only princesses offer their services for dragons. You're obviously not a princess, nor a prince, for that matter. So why are you here, if not to be rescued by a noble knight?"
"For adventure. For a chance at something new."
"You are organize books. How is that adventurous?"
Martin bit his lip. He knew no matter what he said to Douglas, the dragon will not understand. How can he tell him that organizing a dragon's library was much more satisfying than pushing around his wagon of furniture? That he gets to have meals with mythical creatures and that once, he spent neary an hour studying Arthur's wings because they were so beautiful?
Unsure what to say, he shrugged. "You'd be surprised."
Douglas response was to blow smoke from his nose. Frustrated, but no longer annoyed.
Helena still wasn't back yet, so Martin took this chance to ask, "Do you dragons... like having us humans around?"
"Of course," Douglas said. "Who doesn't like the idea of having a beautiful maiden clean our libraries and our treasure rooms?"
"Yes, but I am not a woman. Surely there has been other people who have-"
"There hasn't," Douglas said with complete absoluteness. "You are the first non-monarch male that has ever been in these caves."
Martin jumped a bit as Douglas' neck stretched out, his large head coming towards him. It was a slow, deliberate movement, a non-agressive move, but the sight of a giant purple lizard's head coming towards him was still a bit unnerving.
When Douglas spoke, his voice was low and gentle. "You may think you're having an adventure, Martin, but it's not all fun and games. We try to be careful around the maidens, but accidents happen more frequently than you think. Princesses have been trampled to death here. Burnt alive, even eaten for no other reason than, 'I need a snack.' Carolyn may have you under her protection, but not even she can keep an eye on you all day. Get out while you can."
Martin swallowed loudly. He couldn't get the image of a poor princess burning to death out of his mind. "T-then why are they here? Why don't you send Helena away?"
Douglas huffed. "A lot of these princesses are not from large kingdoms. And every year that passes, the chances of them marrying gets lower and lower. Helena is one of those princesses. If she wants to claim her dowry and be married, the only way she's going to do it is to tack on the honor of saving her from a dragon's grasp. If I send her away, she's just going to go to another dragon. It's best she stays with me. I know how to treat a lady."
Douglas retracted his head then, satisfied he got that over with. They both waited in poor silence until Helena came back from the kitchen, bearing a tray with tea and pasteries.
Despite Helena's best efforts to liven the atmosphere, the whole affair was an awkward, quiet mess. Martin wanted to leave as soon as possible. He stayed long enough to be polite, drinking at least one cup of tea. Once he was done, he made up the excuse of needing to go back before Carolyn became supicious.
Douglas never once talked to him during the entire time.
Martin thanked Helena for the lovely tea and just as he was leaving Douglas' cave, Helena asked, "Martin, did Douglas say something to you?"
Martin wondered if she knew, knew of the danger she was in. Was getting married worth it? Instead of telling the truth, he shook his head and said, "No. My stomach was just acting up. I'm sorry if I made you feel uncomfortable."
"Not at all," she said, relieved. "I wouldn't mind if you come by again. It's nice to have a conversation partner who doesn't smell like smoke every time they talk."
Martin smiled lightly. "I'll think about it."
As Martin walked back to Carolyn's caves, he wondered if what he was doing was worth maiming and death. Talking to Arthur was great, but should he stay simply because he was having fun? He didn't want to die. Especially not a horrible, accidental death.
When he got back to the library, he looked over the books with a sense of forlorn. He could just finish what he had here and leave. Go back home.
Go back to a job he hated. A house with no wife and no kids. Only a donkey who was older than his father was waiting for him back home.
"Martin?" Arthur stuck his head into the library. "Are you okay?"
Martin stared at Arthur. The dragon has been exceptionally careful with him, though there were a few times Martin had to duck out of the way to avoid being trampled on. "Arthur," he began. "Have you ever hurt any of your princesses?"
Arthur walked into the library slowly, hunched in defensiveness. "Why do you ask?"
"Well, there was this one princess... Shishushkibush."
Martin was pretty sure Arthur was mispronouncing that.
"Mum took her because the king bribed mum. You know, so the princess can get married. But the only person who was not in on the plan was Princess Shi-shi-shu-bushki."
"Really? What happened?"
"Obviously, she didn't want to be here. She tried running away loads of time and mum always brought her back." Arthur lowered his head suddenly, ashamed. "One time, when she ran, it was on my watch. So I had to bring her back. She kept kicking and screaming and I... dropped her."
Martin gaped. "You killed her?"
"What? No! I mean, when I got home, on the ground, THAT'S when I dropped her. She landed on her arm and it broke."
Arthur gave off a slow, low whine, like a puppy who just had its tail stepped on. "After that, she was so afraid of us, she was convinced we were trying to kill her. We got a healer to fix her arm but..." He buried his face in his talons. "I don't like being the badguy, Martin."
Martin realized he was going have to make a decision. As much fun as he was having with Arthur, this job certainly wasn't worth losing an arm or leg over. It wasn't as if he was making a huge difference in someone's life, anyways. All he was doing was cleaning, cooking, and organizing.
So should he stay, or go?
That next morning, Martin was still struggling with making a decision. Ultimately, he didn't want to leave. He liked being here, surrounded by things he only ever read in books. Every single day he learned something new, saw something new.
Still. Burned alive.
"Martin, come over here."
Carolyn was calling him over. Martin wondered how she'll react if he told her he didn't want to be here anymore. Would she even care? "Yes?"
Carolyn tossed two pouches towards him. They made a loud noise when they landed. "Look inside," she told him.
Martin picked up one pouch, the larger and heavier one, and pulled back the drawn string. Silver coins gleaned up at him. Confused, he picked up the second pouch, and that too contained silver coins, but considerably less.
"Arthur's birthday is coming up," Carolyn gave as explanation. "So what I would like for you to do is to go the nearest village, Otterly St. Mary, and pick up a few presents for him."
Martin stared wildly down at the coins. There was enough in here to buy a fully furnished house, exactly what did she expect him to buy? "What's the other bag for?"
Martin sucked in a hard breath. This was more than he earned in six months. He never expected to be paid, let alone so well! He clutched the pouch to his chest possessively. "Seriously?"
"Of course," Carolyn said in that tone that indicated she thought Martin was a moron. Though that was how she always spoke. "You can spend it on what you want, but I expect you back with Arthur's presents in three days time."
"Alright," Martin said. "Um... get him what, exactly?"
The old dragon sighed. "Anything you think will make him happy."
Martin wondered if this was a test.
The money Carolyn gave to him was more than he could earn in a year with his moving job. With this money, he needn't to go back home, or hell, go back to Carolyn. He could just run away, start a new life somewhere.
That was assuming, of course, he could outrun Carolyn. He didn't want to find out what would happen if she caught him trying to rob her.
Otterly St. Mary was a least half a day's walk from the caves and Carolyn assured him she wouldn't expect him back for at least three. So that was three days to run, if need be.
Despite the doom and gloom hanging over his head, Martin forgotten what it was like to be outside. He'd spent so much time inside the caves, he didn't realize how much he missed fresh air and blue skies. It felt good to revel in the sunlight, letting it to warm his skin.
Unlike last time, in which Martin left home with very little preparation, he had plenty of water and food to last him the day's walk to Otterly St. Mary. He could afford to rest when he wanted. He also did not have to worry about odd voices trying to lure him off the road. From what Arthur assured him, even those who try to coerce travelers will not dare touch dragon property.
He was tempted to see if that was true. He stepped off the mainroad, wandered about ten feet into the forest and immediately three unseen objects ran off in random directions. Only the shaking bushes gave any indication something was there.
By two o'clock in the afternoon, off in the distance, Martin spotted the cathedral Otterly St. Mary was so well known for. He could not see the whole structure, most of it hidden from view by the protective wall circling the city, but he knew it was beautiful. His town only had a small church and it was mostly used for weddings or funerals.
The closer he got, the wider the road became. He was soon walking side-by-side with other travelers and he found he too missed the company of other humans. Maybe next time he was in the company of Princess Helena, he would make more of an effort to talk to her.
He didn't bother to talk to the other travelers, preffering to enjoy the company they unknowingly gave him. It was nice, not having to worry about getting stepped on.
Martin couldn't help but be in awe of the great wall that protected Otterly St. Mary. Not even Douglas, who was one of the biggest dragons in the caves, wouldn't be able to reach the top. Martin passed underneath the gate, grinning from ear to ear.
There were so many merchants, so many people selling wonderous things. Women advertised colourful cloaks, draping it on themselves and twirling in place. Men sold exotic foods, including fishes from the deep sea, creatures with gaping mouths and large eyes.
The hustle and bustle of a crowded town was wonderful on Martin's ears. He wondered what he should buy a dragon for his birthday, what he would be able to carry back.
First things first, Martin needed a room and some food. Then he could shop.
He seriously doubted Carolyn would approve of him using the gift-money to pay for his room. He didn't mind pulling out a few silver pieces from his own pouch and handing it over to the keeper. It felt great to spend a little.
He had full intentions of only dropping off his things and go out searching the shops, but the moment he sat down on the bed to test its firmness, he couldn't resist the lull of sleep.
Martin woke early that next morning, well rested and hungry. He felt almost like a child again, the way he indulged in a luxury without caring about the cost. He had the whole day just to shop and took his sweet time washing, getting dressed and eating breakfast.
He must remind himself though, he was not here on holiday. He was here to buy Arthur birthday presents.
What do you buy for a dragon who has a library filled with over a thousand books and a treasure room bursting with gold? Martin was sure if he bought Arthur a pair of socks he would be delighted regardless. However, Martin was not about to risk making Carolyn angry for buying such a cheap and thoughtless gift.
So Martin wandered from shop to shop, vendor to vendor, debating and analyzing everything. Cooking ware? Nah, the dragons had a magic cauldron that made them food. Fancy clothes? That's a stupid idea. Maybe another book to add to the collection? Psh, like Martin was going to add on to his load.
It wasn't until Martin passed a vendor that was selling children toys did he find the perfect gift. He decided to buy two, just in case Arthur accidentally ripped one with his talons.
The vendor was delighted by the sale. "Your kids must love you," he said after Martin paid him.
Martin blushed but doesn't bother correcting him.
The amount of time it took to find Arthur's gifts was less than two hours. Martin was suddenly faced with a whole day to himself, with no responsibilities to hold him down. He really did feel like a child again.
He dropped off the gifts in his room, not wanting to carry them around all day. A part of him suddenly felt silly for buying such a thing for a dragon, but he knew Arthur will love it. If Martin spotted something else, he'll buy it too. It's not like he was low on funds.
It was perhaps polite to first visit the cathedral, pay his respects and offer a prayer. After all, who else did Martin have to thank for his change in fate than an otter?
The church in Martin's small town was a humble little thing. The holy relics were old and dented, some of the stain glass windows were broken in a few places. The building was strong and everyone always chipped in should the church suddenly needed a new door or bench. The church was humble but lovely.
The Otterly St. Mary cathedral made Martin's church look like a dungeon for murderers.
As much as he wanted to look at the structure, he couldn't. The building was so massive, staring at it for too long gave him veritgo. He didn't know how the locals can stand it, having this building stare at them in face everyday. It would give Martin a headache.
At least he looked respectful, the way he entered the church with his head bowed. He dared not look up any higher, afraid the inside will overwhelm as much as the outside.
There were dozens of pews, all lined up in long rows as far as the eye could see. There were just as many candles, though none were lit. Enough sunlight streamed through the stain glass windows helped illuminate the cathedral. If Martin was more of a religious man, he would bow.
He spotted a prayer table, all lined with small candles waiting to be lit. He quietly went over, dropping a silver coin in the donation box, and lit one candle.
Martin closed his eyes and gave thanks for his fortune and good luck.
Ironically enough, before he could reopen his eyes, someone swatted him across the head harshly. "OW!"
"Be gone!" Cried the Bishop, brandishing a holy book in his hand. "We do not allow your kind to be here!"
"My kind?" Martin squeaked. "What the hell does that mean?"
"Blasphemy!" The Bishop swatted him again.
"OWW! Stop it!"
"Get out! You are not welcomed here! Out! Out!"
Well, that just ruined his whole day.
Martin gingerly touched the back of his head where the Bishop had swatted him. The area was sore but not bruised, the pain should subside in an hour or two.
Now what was all that about? Nobody else in the city had looked at him weird or treated him any different. His clothes did not smell of smoke so it was not as if the Bishop knew Martin's involvement with dragons. Perhaps the Bishop merely had a grudge against red-haired people. It wouldn't be the first time Martin was discriminated against because of his hair.
It shouldn't have bothered him so much but it did. It reminded Martin of his days back at Fitton, as every woman he asked out first laughed at his hair then laughed at his face. As far as home as he was, not even in a holy city could he escape his humiliation.
He was glad he was leaving tomorrow.
Bags packed and gifts secured, Martin left Otterly St. Mary early the next morning. He didn't bother to look back.
Walking back uphill was not as easy coming down. The shape and size of the toys made the walk awkward and Martin struggled to find an easy way to carry both. There wasn't.
He should have bought himself a satchel.
The more he walked towards the mountain, less and less people he passed. They all snickered at the toys he carried and by the time Martin found himself alone on the road, he was grateful. He wasn't sure he could handle anymore embarrassment after yesterday's fiasco. The sun was too hot and his patience had long since dried.
Up ahead he saw two men coming down the path and Martin mentally groaned. Shifting the toys in his arms, he mentally prepared himself for another onslaught of teasing.
The men walked past, eyeing his toys. "Your kids must love you," one of them said, amused.
Martin nodded. That was twentieth time someone said that to him.
"Excuse me, but do you have any change to spare?"
Martin thought about it. Of course he had money to spare, he had more than enough. But not even he was so ignorant to flash his fortune around. Silently, he shook his head.
"Aw, are you sure?" The man insisted. "If you can afford those toys, surely you can spare a coin or two."
"Sorry," Martin muttered. Warning bells were going off in his head. He tried to move faster up the hill.
One of the men moved in front of him, blocking his path. "You're being very rude," he said, getting into Martin's space, forcing him back. "All that money and you can't spare not one. Damn. Coin? You rich bastard-"
He shoved his hands out, striking Martin across the shoulders. Martin stumbled back, unable to keep his balance and fell. Once on the ground, the man behind him kicked away one of the toys and stepped on Martin's wrist, pinning it to the dirt. "Now," the man sneered. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't shatter your wrist."
"Because I will eat you."
Both of them men were stunned into silence, looking at each other, realizing neither one of them said that.
Martin knew who did. "Douglas?"
The deep voice echoed out of the forest. "I suggest you two numbskulls better run. I have little patience for morons."
One man dared to yell back. "Come out of the forest and say that to my face, old man!"
To their left, the bushes shook lightly. "Alright then."
Douglas' head suddenly shot out of the trees, giant jaws opened wide and coming straight for them. The men screamed as the jaws snapped down a mere inch away from them.
They paid Martin no heed as they tripped over themselves trying to scramble back. "A dragon! It's a dragon!"
"Run, you idiot, run!"
They took down the road, as fast as their legs could carry them.
Once they were gone- thought their screams of terror could still be heard in the wind- Martin picked himself up from the ground. "Were you really going to eat them?"
How a dragon his size could hide himself so perfectly well in the trees, Martin will never know. Douglas stepped out from the forest and onto the road, looking so satisfied with himself. "Still not grateful, I see."
"I... no, you're right. Thank you, Douglas. I greatly appreciate it."
Douglas hummed. "So you're really going back to the caves, are you?"
"Of course I am."
"I'm surprised. Most humans ran when given those pouches."
Douglas huffed and pointed to the money pouches. "Fool, Carolyn gave you an out. There was enough there so if you choose to run, you would've had enough money to help you."
It WAS a test, Martin couldn't believe it. He always thought up till this point Carolyn was just tolerating his presence. He never thought she cared enough about him to let him leave, let alone help him do it.
He never felt so flattered.
Martin sputtered. "But I thought- it was- but well I- she... wait, so you're telling me it's NOT Arthur's birthday?"
Douglas groaned out loud, shaking his massive head. "Of all the things to focus on... you really are staying, aren't you?"
Douglas was right. Martin thought he was staying because he was afraid Carolyn would have hunted him down, but he never really gave that any serious thought. The whole time he was out, he thought about Arthur and what to buy him. He thought about coming back to the caves and figuring out what he planned to do tomorrow. Despite wanting to leave, a bigger part of him was already planning for the future.
He already made his decision, hadn't he?
Martin smiled at this revelation, then quickly covered it when Douglas reacted to it. "What about you?" Martin asked, fighting down a blush. "Why are you following me?"
Douglas shrugged. "I wanted to see if you would leave. Though thanks to you, I now owe Helena ten gold coins. She wagered you would stay."
This time, Martin didn't hide his smile. "I'm glad to have helped."
Something changed in Douglas' demeanor, the way he cocked his head at Martin's good nature humor. Up to this point, the dragon had treated the human like a burden, something to tolerate for a unknown amount of time. Now he looked at Martin like he'd never seen anything like him before.
His eyes went to the toys still lying in the dirt. "That's what you bought Arthur? Really?"
Martin frowned. "Why? You don't think he'll like it?"
"I... well, actually, perhaps he will. I guess we'll find out, won't we?"
Without saying another word, Douglas sweeped up the toys in one giant claw and picked up Martin's pouches in the other. He then stooped low to the ground, lowering one shoulder. "Up."
"It'll take another four hours of walking to get back and there are thieves everywhere. Climb on, I'll fly us back."
"R-really?" Martin stared at the dragon's wings. Since day one, he found their wings to be fascinating and beautiful. Every single time Arthur requested Martin to clean them, he jumped at the opportunity to do so. The request to fly always sat on his tongue. He never dared asked, afraid his request sounded more like something you ask a labor animal, not your boss.
"I'm not going to offer twice," Douglas said. "Either climb on or walk."
Martin scrambled. He climbed Douglas shoulder, feeling giddy as he swung one leg over the base of the dragon's neck. He supposed he could be more comfortable if he moved a bit back, but he wasn't sure if his legs would interefere with the wings.
Douglas scrunched up like a cat. "Hold on tight."
That was all the warning Martin had before Douglas shot off into the cloudless sky, his wings spreading wide.
"You can get off now."
Martin didn't want to get off. He wanted to stay on Douglas' back forever. He didn't care how physically impossible that was, but he never-
Douglas shook his shoulders, dislodging the human. Martin slid off without care and landed flat on his back in the dirt, staring unblinking up at Douglas with awe.
Douglas frowned down at him. "Are you alright?"
"That," Martin began slowly. "Was the most incredible experience of my life."
Douglas was taken back. "Well, I-"
"Ooh..." Martin cupped his face, trying to remember that lovely feeling. The way his stomach rolled at the unexpected elevation climb. The way the cold air bit at his cheeks and mussed his hair. Remembering how he looked over Douglas' side to see the world far below him, the long green fields and giant blue lakes. He thought at best, flying would be fun and somewhat amusing. That was a revelation. That was life-changing.
He uncovered his face. "Can we do it again?"
His eagerness spooked the dragon. "No," said Douglas, disturbed. He dropped Martin's things next to him. "Here. Go surprise Arthur, you silly human man."
Martin giggled stupidly up at him. He moved, picking up his bags and Arthur's fake-birthday gifts and followed Douglas into the caves. He caught up with the dragon and walked besides him, not behind him, this time with more faith he was not going to be crushed underneath those huge clawed feet.
Martin hummed a soft tune as Douglas kept throwing him side-glances.
They met Carolyn half-way. "Martin!" She said, clearly surprised. "I... uh... didn't expect you back so soon."
"Yes, well, thank you Carolyn for giving me that lovely holiday. That was very kind of you."
She shifted uncomfortably. "Uh..."
"Where's Arthur? I want to give him the souvenirs I bought him."
She blinked at the emphasis on the word, then blushed. "I... he's in the library, waiting for your return. He'll be... surprised to see you."
Martin grinned. "I'm sure he will be."
As Carolyn said, Martin found Arthur in the library, whimpering. He was curled around a set of piled books, looking as sad as Martin has ever seen him. "Hello, Arthur."
Arthur's head sprang up. "Martin!" He cried out happily, jumping to his feet and knocking down the books he wrapped himself around. He bounded over like an excited puppy, unable to fully control his limbs. "Mum told me you went back home!"
"Oh no, I guess she was misinformed."
Arthur's eyes landed on the toys. "What are those?"
"These," Martin said, pulling them up higher for his friend to see. "Are for you."
Arthur trembled in place. "Really?" he said. "Really?" His mouth curved upwards, showing off every pointed tooth he had and squealed, "OTTERS!"
He snatched the first plush toy with his mouth and threw up in the air. He twisted on his hind legs, caught the toy and chomping down, shook his head violently, ripping the poor thing apart.
As one piece of cotton bounced off Martin's cheek, he was suddenly glad he bought two.
Arthur stopped as soon as he noticed all that was left dangling from his mouth was the cloth. "Whoops," he said.
Martin presented him with the second toy.
Shyly, this time Arthur gently took the otter plush toy from him, muttered a muffled, "Fank yvou," and happily trotted off down the cave.
Martin stared over the library and the dozens of piles of books yet to be put away. Though he knew organizing books was not as adventurous as battling ogres or saving maidens in distress, he knew he wouldn't want to be anywhere else but here.
He rolled up his sleeves. "Time to get to work."
Now that Martin knew without a doubt Carolyn liked him, that Douglas liked him, staying with the dragons became a hundred times more interesting. They were his friends, even though neither of them dared say it out loud.
Carolyn dropped the eating threats immediately. She still occasionally chastised him if he made a mistake or if he bothered her too much. She seemed to be more internally grateful Martin became a permanent friend for Arthur. She always hid her smile whenever she thought he was looking.
Arthur was more than happy to take Martin on his outings, letting him ride on his back as he flew. The flights weren't always perfect, as Arthur liked to perform random barrel-rolls and forget Martin was not tied down. Martin has been caught in mid-air more times than he liked.
Weekly tea sessions with Helena and Douglas were always great to look forward to. Helena was happy to have a fellow human companion. And now that Douglas no longer perceived Martin as an unwanted limb, the dragon opened up a lot more, making the two humans laugh as he retold fantastical tales of his adventures.
On one particular sunny day, Martin wondered if Helena and Douglas would like to have their tea outside in the fresh air. Martin knew Helena needed to stay by the caves at all time to wait for her soon-to-be rescuer, but surely she could spare an hour to sit in the sunlight.
With a blanket slung over his shoulder, Martin walked to Douglas' caves, hoping Helena made those wonderful coffee cakes he liked.
Instead, what he found, was Douglas curled in on himself solemnly.
Martin entered the cave cautiously. Never has he seen the dragon look so defeated before.
"Douglas?" Martin asked, looking around and finding nothing. Not even the Princess was present. "What's wrong? Where's Helena?"
Douglas turned his tired purple eyes towards him. He mumbled, "Helena was rescued this morning."
Martin put down his blanket, the picnic forgotten. "Rescued? But... I mean, that's a good thing, right? That's what she wanted... to get married?"
Douglas nodded slowly like his head was to heavy to move. "I'm happy for her," he said sighing. "Really, I am. The prince seemed to be quite a catch, too. Young, handsome... quite an exotic man. Comes from the East, apparently."
Martin came near, unsure of how to respond. He should be happy for Helena. She now gets to go back home, get married, and go on with her life. However, no matter how Martin rationalized it, even he felt saddened by her sudden absence. He could only wonder how Douglas felt.
Silently, he sat down next to Douglas and let him speak.
"I've had princesses before, you know," Douglas said. "We all have. But all of them were always so afraid. You can't blame them- they're forced to leave their homes, go to a strange new land, surrounded by strange creatures. I always do my best to make sure they never felt unsafe, but there's just some barriers you can't get around. Helena was the first princess who ever treated me like... like a friend, not just the monster who held her captive. I miss..."
He cut himself off, his lip curling in embarrassed disdain.
Martin raised his hand and as gently as he could, touched the side of Douglas' head. The rough scales underneath scratched at his palm. Martin merely pressed harder, rubbing smooth circles near the jaw.
Douglas' head was nearly bigger than his whole body. His hand against the scales probably felt no more comforting than a tick biting at him. Despite that, Douglas leaned into that touch, closing his eyes and grunting softly.
Martin had no idea where he was. He kept checking and rechecking his homemade map, but nothing about these set of caves were familiar. He had to face it, he was lost.
That's what he gets for going down an unknown corridor. Up till this point he had been rather fastidious about his map, confident of where he was and how to get back. He had to be, he really didn't want Arthur finding him again and treating him like a lost babe in the woods.
Martin supposed the only way was to go forward and hoped he popped out somewhere familiar or maybe run into one of the other dragons who will kindly point his way. He kept walking, resisting the urge to take a detour down another path. If he came across a dead-end up ahead, then at least he could just turn around.
Martin stepped into another set of caves, pausing his trek. This place was familiar. Maybe it was Carl's? It's been a while since Martin interacted with him.
He trotted in further and immediately spotted a woman sitting on a stool. Carl had a princess, too? Relieved to finally found someone, Martin walked over to greet her. "Hello, miss. I'm Martin, may I ask-"
The princess turned around. "Martin?"
Martin froze. "Helena?"
She looked awful. Her hair was a mess, her clothes deshevled, and there was a giant angry bruise cascading across her cheek. "Martin, what are you doing here?" She demanded in a harsh whisper. "You shouldn't be here!"
"Me? What about you? Douglas told me you were rescued over a month ago!"
"I-I was... I..." She swallowed, desperate to keep her composure. "Another dragon took me from my home. He's holding me ransom."
"Ransom? But... you were already rescued! Isn't that against the rules or something?"
"Look, it doesn't matter. You need to leave now. He won't be happy to see you here-"
Martin smelled the smoke before he saw it. Living among dragons, Martin got used to the smell of burnt wood and ashy air. He twisted around, a protest on his lips on Helena's behalf. Why did this dragon kidnap Helena when she was already rescued?
He looked and his question died in his throat.
Gordon blinked wildly at him for a second. He suddenly sneered, baring his teeth dangerously. "What the bloody hell are you doing here?"
Helena was pushing Martin by the shoulders. "Go, now!" She hissed desperately. "I'll be fine! Go! Go!"
Gordon surged forward, his mouth opened wide and ready to chomp down. Martin dove out of the way, tumbled, and leapt back onto his feet, running for his life. From behind, Gordon yelled at his back, "Don't ever return, you little rodent!"
Martin ran through the caves, never once stopping to catch his breath or to check his map. At that moment, his feet knew where to go. By the time he arrived to Douglas' caves, Martin was wheezing dreadfully while clutching a terrible stitch dug on his side.
"Douglas," he breathed. He tried to catch his breath. "Douglas... I saw... Gordon has Helena! She's here!"
Martin expected anger from Douglas. Maybe a growl or even some fire spitting. Instead, Douglas replied, in a very solemn voice, "I know."
Martin felt like he was just slapped. "You know? You know? Well, what are you going to do about it? Go get her!"
"I can't," Douglas said. "You know the rules. A dragon cannot take another dragon's property."
"Rules? Are you kidding me? It's Helena! Forget the rules! Go save her!"
"No, Martin, you don't understand. I literally cannot save her, Gordon is much stronger than I am. If I attempt to take Helena back, Gordon has every right to defend what is his. If I fight him, I will lose and I will die."
Martin was stunned into silence. He always knew some of the dragons had their differences, had the right to take back what was theirs, but he didn't think it involved an actual duel to the death. Douglas was Martin's friend, he didn't want the dragon to die.
"But..." Martin said slowly. "What about Helena? Douglas, we can't leave her there. I don't think Gordon is careful around her. She looks..."
"There is nothing I can do, but should a prince decide to rescue her, Gordon will have to let her leave."
What, Douglas meant Helena's fiancee? He could be days away. "We can't till he gets here! We have to do something now!"
"I agree. That's why a prince-" Douglas jabbed Martin in the shoulder. "-should rescue her. "
Martin clutched at his shoulder, horribly confused. He glanced up at Douglas, wondering what implication he was trying to make.
Then it clicked in Martin's head. His mouth dropped. "M-me? I'm not a prince!"
"No, but you are human, and you automatically create a blind spot in every dragon's defense. You can get in, grab Helena, and get out without Gordon knowing you were there."
"I... where would I go? I can't outrun a dragon."
"Is that your map?" Douglas didn't wait for him to respond, and reached out and plucked Martin's homemade map from his hand. He spread it out on the ground and studied it for a minute. "Here," he finally said, pointing to an area near the top. "There's a small tunnel here. The gnomes carved it out many centuries ago to sneak in. Many forget it ever existed. It leads outside of the mountain. The moment you can get Helena outside, Gordon can't touch her."
A terrifying feeling was settling in Martin's stomach. He knew he would not leave Helena in the claws of Gordon, but if he escaped with her... he was never coming back. Not unless he wanted to face the wrath of a very angry dragon.
Martin blinked up to Douglas and he too, understood the full consequences of their actions. There was no going back from this.
With his mouth set in determination, Martin said, "Point out the tunnel again."
Martin wished he could write a letter to Arthur like he did to his siblings, but there wasn't enough time. He didn't want to come to Gordon's caves an hour later only to find poor Helena was eaten. Every second counted.
His heart was beating so hard, he feared he might faint. Martin slipped into the vicinity of Gorodn's caves, taking every precaution he could think of. Douglas must be right about people being dragons' blind spots. Martin was so deep in Gordon's caves, a small part of him was tempted to see if he could steal something.
He eventually found Helena in Gordon's library, trying to sort through books that were way too heavy for her. Martin was glad he didn't wait to get her. A nasty cut across her forehead now joined the bruise on her cheek.
When Helena saw him, he gestured wildly to her to keep quiet.
Martin took one last look around, checking the corners for Gordon. Seeing that they were alone, he trotted over to her and grasped her hand. "C'mon," he whispered. "I'm getting you out of here."
He pulled her behind him and thankfully she didn't resist. He wasn't sure what he'll do if she didn't want to leave.
Helena let Martin guide her, pausing when he paused, never once questioning where he was taking her. Everything was going to plan and for a few minutes, Martin foolishly thought they were going to make it without incident.
"Helena?" Gordon bellowed from far behind them, his voice echoing angrily through the tunnels. "Helena? WHERE ARE YOU?"
Martin gripped her wrist tightly. "Run!"
They sprinted as fast as they could through the caves. Helena unfortunately kept stumbling due to her long dress tangling around her legs. Martin couldn't afford to be gentle with her, hauling her back up by her arm every time she nearly tripped.
Gordon's voice was getting closer and closer. The caves began to smell heavily of smoke, making it hard to breath.
They finally came upon the area where Douglas said the exit tunnel was located. It was this tiny little opening on the side of the wall, so dark it could easily been mistaken for shadow. Martin momentarily breathed a sigh of relief.
"Watch out!" Helena yelled suddenly, grabbing Martin and pulling him down. He cried out as a giant claw narrowly swished past his shoulder. Had Helena not grabbed him, he would have surely been decapitated.
"You little snot!" Gordon growled intensely. He was so angry, bits of flame were dribbling out of the corners of his mouth. He shot his claw out, violently pushing Helena out of the way, separating them. Helena slammed against the cave wall, and curled in on herself in pain. Martin scurried back on his hands, desperately trying to avoid the burning ciders falling to the ground. "I knew I should have eaten you on that first day!"
Gordon's head lunged downward, jaws wide opened.
The world was filled with violent sound as out of nowhere, Carolyn slammed her head against Gordon's side, throwing him nearly across the cave.
Gordon landed heavily, skidded, his limbs kicking out like an overturned insect.
"This is my human," Carolyn growled, stepping over Martin's body protectively. "So back off!"
Martin suddenly understood why no knight dared cross swords with her. Her lips were pulled back, revealing every single one of her pointed teeth. Even her spiked tail was now poised to strike. As old as she sounded, she was a force not to be reckoned with.
Gordon righted himself, his back arching like an indignant cat. "That human tried to steal my princess! I have every right to defend what's mine!"
"If you want him, come and take him!"
They roared and dove at each other, clashing and twisting their long necks, trying to bite.
Martin surged to his feet and ran to Helena. "Are you okay?"
She nodded despite her eyes clenched in pain. "I'm fine, I'm fine!"
"C'mon," Martin pulled her up and started moving towards the exit tunnel.
It was nearly impossible to do. Gordon and Carolyn were fighting so fiercely, it was like trying to navigate through a field of falling logs. Every single time they got near the exit, a tail or a giant clawed foot would force them to detour just to avoid being trampled.
"Back up, back up!"
Finally, Carolyn jumped on top of Gordon, snapping at him while he tried to push her off. Taking this opportunity, Martin and Helena dashed to the tunnel. It was smaller than it looked. "Helena, go on," Martin said, helping her into the very small, very cramped cave.
She had to bend low and move sideways to fit. "Martin!"
Behind, Gordon finally shoved Carolyn off. He twisted his head, faced Martin and dropped his jaw. From the back of his throat, light erupted.
Martin shoved Helena back. "GO!"
And that was the last thing he said before he was engulfed in flames.
Burning to death wasn't so bad.
Martin thought there would a great deal of pain. After hearing the unfortunate fates of some of the princesses, Martin's imagination was filled with morbid thoughts of burning to death. He wondered what it was like, how it would feel. Was it a slow and agonizing death, or did it happen so fast, you would be ash before you know it?
Orange flame twirled around him, crackling loudly. If he wasn't so busy dying, he would have thought the colours beautiful. It was actually quite a peaceful way to die.
The flame around him suddenly ceased and Martin thought, Well, this is it. It's time to meet my Maker. He blinked, expecting to see the Holy Land laid out before him.
Instead, it was Gordon's shocked face that greeted him. Smoke bellowed out from his nostrils as he gaped, "What the hell?"
Martin stared down at his hands. No burned skin, no singed clothing, he didn't even feel hot. Slowly, he raised his hands to his hair and his eyes widened as he felt it on fire. There was no pain, not on his scalp or his palms. Curious, he ran his fingers through his hair, extinguishing the fire, leaving nothing but non-burnt red curls.
"Impossible," Gordon murmured. "Impossible."
He was so stunned, he didn't see Carolyn twisting behind him. She swung her tail with deadly force and slammed it into the side of his head. Gordon fell to the ground, and with a soft grunt, slumped into unconsciousness.
Carolyn inspected the fallen dragon for a second, sniffed and huffed. She stepped over him. "Well, Martin," she said cooly. "You certainly surprised all of us."
"I-" Martin didn't know what just happened. How was he still alive? "I-"
A hand grasped his, tugging it. Helena poked her head out of the small tunnel, her eyes pleading. "Martin," she said. "Let's go."
Martin let himself be led, still too stunned to think. He slipped into the small tunnel, ducking his head. He paused briefly and looked back.
Carolyn made no movement to stop him, voiced no protest. If anything, she looked rather proud.
Helena tugged at his hand again and Martin turned back to follow her. Half of him wanted to stay, wanted to thank Carolyn for everything she's done, but something told him he wasn't done with these dragons just yet.
The moment both he and Helena climbed out of the tunnel, she threw her arms around him, hugging him close. "Thank you, Martin," she sobbed. "Thank you so much."
"You're welcome," Martin grunted at the unexpected hug.
Helena pulled away. "How? How did you survive? I saw you go up in flames!"
"I-I don't know. Magic, maybe?"
"You're a wizard?"
"No, but it had to be magic, right? Maybe someone put a spell on me?"
Helena was unconvinced. "Martin, do you have any idea how powerful dragon fire is? How do you think the tunnels were built? Douglas told me they literally melted the rock away. A common anti-burn spell wouldn't be able withstand that!"
Martin had no answer to give. However, now wasn't the time to discuss this. It was best to get Helena away from this mountain before another dragon decided it would like to have a princess.
"Let's get you home," Martin said.
Helena offered him a place in her royal court. Her advisors argued against it, saying Martin was not a noble nor has he ever been trained to be in court. Helena told them to stuff it and if they want to argue against the man who faced against multiple dragons, they were welcomed to it.
Unfortunately, Martin agreed with the advisors. He was not a politician and had no plans pursuing such a career. He gently turned down the offer.
It also didn't help Helena's husband, the Prince, cared very little for the young man whom his wife befriended. He thanked Martin, but kept a respectable distance from him.
"Is there anything I can do?" Helena asked. She was oblivious to the deep frown her husband was displaying. "Lands, a title? You saved a princess, Martin, you have every right to be rewarded."
Martin thought back to the large bag of coins Carolyn gave him so long ago. He didn't know it at the time, but money had never been a priority for him. It was nice to have it, though that was not why he followed the otter's advice.
Martin didn't want to be rewarded. He wanted to go home.
How do you ask for something like that? He couldn't go back to Fitton- he didn't want to go back to Fitton. There was no way he could go back to Carolyn, unless he wanted to face the wrath of Gordon. There was nothing for him here. Even with Helena's friendship, the princess was way too busy with her job as royal monarch to spend time with him.
Martin didn't know what to do. He thought back to the otter, and wondered what she would say right now.
The doors to the great hall burst opened, making them all jump at the noise. Helena's advisor ran in like the devil was on his heels, looking so flustered he could barely speak. He kept pointing uselessly behind him. "Your highnesses- I- wheeze- I- hmm... I- uh..."
"Calm yourself," the Prince commanded. "Then speak."
The advisor took several deep breaths, none of which were helping. Finally, he was able to sputter out, "Dragon! Huh-huh-huh-huh- A d-dragon in the courtyard!"
Martin and Helena shared a look. Before the Prince even got a chance to speak, they both took off running for the courtyard. They ignored all the shocked gasps they got along the way, the yells of how a princess should not be seen with a commoner. They didn't stop running until they got to front doors, flinging them open to get outside.
Out in the courtyard, surrounded by forty armed guards was Douglas. "Your highness," he said, bowing. He gave little heed to the guards around him who were too scared to get close.
Martin has never been so happy to see him. Though it had only been three weeks since he and Helena left the caves, it was long enough to make the whole experience feel like a dream. He kept expecting to wake up back at Fitton, back at his old life where nothing was extraordinary or magical.
Martin wanted to say something but held his tongue. For all he knew, Douglas was only here for Helena.
"Dragon," Helena said back, curtseying. "To what do I owe the honour of your presence?"
"I'm here for a kidnapping."
Martin gaped at him. He just saved Helena and Douglas was going to ruin that?
Helena scoffed. "A kidnapping? Douglas, you know the rules. You lost me once, you cannot have me again."
"I agree princess. But who said I was here for you?"
His large purple eyes then drifted from Helena... to Martin.
Martin quickly looked behind him. Seeing no one, he looked back, wanting confirmation.
Douglas rolled his eyes, shaking his massive head. "I know," Helena sympathized. "Would you like to do this properly?"
"If you would, please."
"Right." Helena raised her voice to the guards, and pointing a finger at Douglas, boomed out, "Guards! Kill the dragon!"
"Wait, what?" Martin protested.
The guards suddenly marched forward, their spears at the ready. Douglas went on his hind legs and gave out a magnificent roar, vibrating the very earth they stood on. The spears were throw and Douglas knocked most of them away with a fling of his wing. The ones that struck his body bounced off, too weak to pierce his hide.
Douglas surged forward, running towards Martin and Helena at top speed. Martin couldn't believe it, after everything they did, Douglas was still going to take Helena?
Not going to happen. Martin stepped in front of the princess, holding up his hands to Douglas. "Douglas, stop! You have no right-"
His protest was replaced with a high pitched squeal as Douglas swooped his claw down, snatching Martin up from the ground. "Aughhhhh?"
Helena waved at him. "Goodbye, Martin. Do write when you're settled in."
Martin wasn't given time to understand. Douglas bowed his head one last time to her and with a giant flap of his wings, pushed off the ground. Helena was still waving as Douglas flew over the confused guards, over the castle grounds, slowly gaining elevation with each flap. From his spot in Douglas' claw, Martin could see the surrounding villagers staring up at him, pointing in fear- some in fascination. They passed the great wall of the kingdom and soared higher and higher until they broke through the clouds.
They didn't fly far. Douglas decended a mere ten minutes later. He landed next to a large lake, dropping Martin near the water's edge.
Martin opened his mouth, determined to get answers. Instead, Douglas' opened his mouth and breathed fire upon him.
Martin instinctively threw up his hands to protect himself. Like Gordon, the fire swirled around him, touching his skin and hair and not burning a thing. The fire ceased and Douglas pulled back, looking smug. "Ah, I knew it."
"Knew it?" Martin squealed, putting down his hands. "Knew it? As in, you didn't know before? You just breathed fire on me unsure if I can withstand it?"
"Calm down, Martin."
"NO! What the hell is going on, Douglas! Why are you here? Why was I kidnapped? Why am I not dead?"
"I'm here to kidnap you. I kidnapped you because I wanted you. You're not dead because you're a fire witch."
Martin's brain couldn't comprehend any of that. "What?"
Douglas sighed heavily, drooping his head and shaking it woefully. He glanced up at the boy. "Have you ever heard of a fire witch?"
"I didn't expect you would. They've been extinct for nearly five hundred years now. Killed off, they were, in the Great War. They're elementals, fire breathers. They have the unique ability to be immune to dragon fire."
Martin gaped at him. "Wha... no... I've been burnt by fire before. I worked at my father's forge, I know what being burned feels like!"
Doulgas shrugged. "You're not a pure blood, I'm sure. I guess being surrounded by dragon magic 'woke' some of your latent abilities. I've always suspected you might be one, fire witches are known for their red hair, but I had little hope for that."
His red hair, Martin thought slowly, as he ran his hand through his locks. He thought back to his village and how he was the only red haired person there. He thought back to Otterly St. Mary and how the bishop threw him out of the cathedral, telling him 'his kind' was not welcomed there.
Fire witch. Literally born to interact with dragons. Suddenly everything made so much sense.
Martin cupped his mouth in awe.
"Carolyn told me what happened," Douglas said.
"Carolyn!" Martin gasped, breaking out of his shock. "Oh my gosh, is she okay? Did Gordon-?"
"She's fine, Martin. Estatic, really. After she defeated Gordon, according to the rules, he had to grant her a boon."
Douglas said smugly, "Half of his treasure and library now belongs to her."
Martin nearly choked. According to Arthur, Gordon was the richest amongst the dragons. Martin could not imagine the amount of gold he had to give up to Carolyn
"Of course, you ran away and now Carolyn can't touch you. Such a shame. Having a fire witch would have really made her popular. That's why I chose to take you before any other dragon decided to."
Martin blinked up at him. Happiness was bubbling in his heart. "O-oh?"
"Yes. And you'll organize my library, my treasure room-"
"And be my friend?"
Douglas paused. Slowly, he smiled gently at him. No teeth. "Yes, of course."
Still with that kind look on his face, Douglas got on his feet and swooped his shoulder down in a familair way. Martin scrambled up to his back, positioning himself comfortably.
Without another word, Douglas spread his wings wide.
Chapter 11: Epilogue
There was an otter pup in the kitchen.
Martin paused and looked around, trying to see if there were more. A few times Douglas had dropped off animals for Martin to butcher, chickens and sheep and once a goat, but nothing as exotic as an otter pup. Arthur would be devestated if he learned Martin served that as dinner.
"Hello," the otter pup suddenly said. "Still alive, I see."
"Uh, yes... may I ask what you're doing here, little one?"
"My mother sent me. She wanted to know if you got eaten or not."
"Your...?" It's been nearly seven months since that faithful day. It took Martin a second to understand. "Oh! Yes! I'm fine, I'm very happy! Please tell your mother I said, 'Thank you.'"
"I will," said the pup. He twisted around and started trotting down the tunnel.
"Wait," Martin cried out. "What is your name?"
The pup was already gone from sight but Martin still heard his echoing reply.
A few months ago Martin would have moaned at that. Today, he giggled in appreciation. Still grinning, he turned back into the caves to finish off what he started.